Poor old Marks & Sparks.  Rarely out of the news, although these days it’s more often gloom and doom in the business pages than a glowing piece in the fashion supplements.

Their latest set of ‘disappointing’ results, which show food sales also starting to tank, triggered a further slew of premature obituaries.  In Marketing Week, Mark Ritson bases a piece on brand equity on M&S’s predicament.  He sounds the death knell, concluding that any brand occupying the ‘middle ground’ is a surefire goner, as we’re all busy stocking up on sweatshop t-shirts whilst doing our weekly shop at Asda.

I must beg to differ on this one.  M&S’s problem is they consistently ignore the wealth of free market research at their disposal.

If you venture below the line on ANY article on the brand over the last few years, you will see literally hundreds of comments from long term, loyal but dissatisfied, customers telling them exactly where they’re going wrong.  Most brands would kill for this level of insight.

These insights are free, consistent and gold-dust.  But the points so frequently raised are never addressed.  M&S is not actually listening to their customers, instead pinning their hopes on ‘fashion directors’ and supermodels.

Time and again, their loyal customer base complains about price, quality and fit.  They complain about the plethora of sub-brands which make the stores cluttered and hard to navigate.  They wonder where all the helpful shop floor assistants have disappeared to and how the magazine-featured pieces can sell out before they even hit the shops.  They lament that they can never find any of the good stuff in their size.  They complain that many of the regional stores are poor relations to the big city and shopping mall locations.  And time and again, they cry in despair, “who on earth is this stuff aimed at?!”.

M&S have committed the cardinal marketing sin of losing sight of their core customer.

To add a few marketing-related observations of my own; their terrible website, their emails that feature whole outfits, when some items are unavailable.  Their great menswear partnership with David Gandy, which doesn’t seem to extend to actually selling the range in any of the shops, in a decent selection of sizes.  Their confusing stock management systems which make online searching a nightmare (I recently ordered 4 pieces of matching swimwear.  On the paperwork, these identical items were listed as three different colours).  And then there was the sponsored piece in the Telegraph showcasing their autumn range, with links that clicked though to completely different garments…

Instead of acting on all this invaluable feedback, they send out terrible product development surveys (I’m on one of their ‘opinion panels’ – the format is ridiculous) and their Director of Customer Insight, Nathan Ansell, says things like;

“…we (need to) think more about how the customer is viewing us in their world, in the context of all the other things they’ve got going on in their lives, and make sure we deliver on that particular mission.”

I’m sure Nathan is a top bloke, but this sort of marketing nonsense does our industry no favours.  In another Marketing Week piece, he also states, “businesses need to start looking at how customers view their brand rather than trying to understand customers by looking at them through the lens of their brand”.  I’m sorry, I’ve worked in marketing for over 25 years but have absolutely no idea what that means.

M&S segmentation suggests there are “a large number of occasional customers who come in 10 times a year”.  I can tell you for free that they are visiting every month or so in the vain hope that M&S has finally got its act together.  But after walking around the store and realizing they haven’t, they leave empty handed.  I can tell you this as I am one of them.

Instead of listening, they plan to move from a “mass communication mentality towards more one-to-one conversations with customers, which means taking a personalised approach through more precise targeting and measurement… it’s about having a genuine conversation with the customer and speaking to them about things that matter and what’s important to them.”

No, Nathan!  I don’t want to have a conversation with you about my knickers.  Please just get the basics right.


This obsession with ‘conversations’ and ‘engagement’ is another fools errand.  As the Ad Contrarian so perfectly puts it in his current blog;

“There is only one essential job for marketing – to acquire customers.  Everything else marketing does is a footnote. This is why the current obsession with social media is largely misguided.”

Going back to Ritson’s piece, his comparison to the grocery sector is where his argument falls down.  Where does he think the fashion conscious (not fashion victim) affluent Waitrose shopper buys her clothes?

Ritson notes that the M&S brand was “founded on a vision of aspirational value and quality…”  This is still relevant, and is a yawning gap on the High Street.  Value denotes quality and price, and it used to be M&S’s mantra.  Millions of women, aged 30-80, aren’t interested in the polar ends of the discount-designer spectrum.  We have money to spend and nowhere to spend it, as recently lamented by Sali Hughes in this article for The Pool.

We don’t want cold shoulder tops and frills.  And if we do want the latest catwalk copycat pieces, we’ll head to Zara or H&M.  M&S isn’t in the ‘fast fashion’ space and should stop aspiring to be there.

Back in the 80s and 90s, M&S was THE place for the foundations of a smart, fashionable, working wardrobe.  Great suits, silk shirts, wool skirts, cashmere sweaters, well cut trousers. It was great value and great quality.  I still have a collection of cashmere sweaters that must be around 15 years old and still look fabulous.  Fabric and cut matter.

M&S has lost the meaning of the word ‘classic’.  Classic is timeless, quality pieces that are the staples of your wardrobe and that you cherish for years.  In their world, Classic is the brand name for their range of frumpy florals and elasticated polyester that they think will appeal to the ‘older woman’.  Please note, 40+ women do not suddenly lose the will to look fashionable, nor do many of those aged 60-70+ – see Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, Theresa May et al.

M&S’s worries won’t be solved by commissioning Alexa Chung (who the majority of customers either haven’t heard of or don’t care about) to rummage through their archives.  Or employing a director of Halfords to oversee fashion (don’t even get me started on that one).

M&S is a national institution.  There is so much love for the brand and there would be a justifiable outcry if it went under.

So PLEASE grab that space with both hands, M&S.  We need you and we’re waiting with our credit cards in hand.

And don’t let this be just another invaluable piece of customer insight* that you ignore… 

* Written by a former M&S Saturday Girl (Men’s Suits, Marble Arch c.1983), long-time customer, shareholder and freelance Marketing Director.